The economy of piracy: how game publishers are killing the PC

For as long as I can remember, the media has talked about the death of the PC as a gaming platform. The latest hot console comes out with comparable graphics, and the doomsayers dust off their placards and start chanting.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
5 min read

For as long as I can remember, the media has talked about the death of the PC as a gaming platform. The latest hot console comes out with comparable graphics, and the doomsayers dust off their placards and start chanting.

The arguments have always been purely technical: the games look and sound better — or at least are close enough to the PC at a fraction of the cost. Then the PC gets its regular upgrade, the latest killer title, and PC owners pick up their mouses and nod sagely, knowing that history is on their side.

Until recently.

From a developer perspective, consoles have always had one thing in their favour — a closed platform. Developers design for one spec, and one spec alone. A console has a defined shelf life, and over that period a dev team can become very efficient coding for it, eking out the best performance from the hardware they've come to know well.

Backing the PC means covering individual sound cards, graphic cards, multiple resolutions, chipsets and operating systems. Making sure a game runs as well on a lowly specced platform as a blazingly fast gaming rig. The dev team also has to be on the ball for new iterations of hardware that come out, providing patches where necessary. Then a new driver can come out, and break everything.

While APIs make the job easier, it's nothing compared to a single feature set that doesn't change over the product's lifetime. The less time dev teams spend supporting hardware and the less platforms covered, the less money spent. In short, consoles make financial sense.

However, it's not been until the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 where they've made platform sense. The combination of internet connectivity, online stores and communities, media playback and the rise of high-definition TV has given gamers access to near PC-like capability, but still locked inside a blackbox environment.

By nature of this controlled environment, piracy on consoles is more difficult. Whether it was in the old days of finding and buying pirated cartridges, or in the new with mod-chipping a console, or overwriting firmware of a DVD drive to ignore unsigned code, piracy on the console has always come with a higher barrier of entry than simply replacing an EXE file.

The Xbox 360 was hacked quickly thanks to its commodity DVD drive, but there is a cost involved other than potentially bricking your console due to a dodgy firmware update — the potential of being banned from Xbox Live.

Sony was smarter again with the PlayStation 3; the combination of region free games, the expense of Blu-ray writeable discs, a complex technical system, allowing users to install Linux and their own hard drives all with Sony's blessings we'd imagine has dissuaded a large crowd of those who would usually be inclined to contribute in hacking it. The PlayStation 3 has been on the shelves since November 2006, and yet not a single mechanism has been developed to play pirated games. The games can be dumped, sure, but other than archiving, there's nothing that can be done with them. Sony has created what seems to be the perfect storm of features to curb interest in piracy.

So suddenly you have an option that gives a near-PC experience, with considerably lower piracy stats. How do you go about killing the platform you don't want to support?

First, you slowly increase the severity of DRM on your titles until it becomes unusable, and the console option starts looking a lot easier for users.

Then, you get a bunch of developers complaining about rampant piracy, and about how they're either switching to console, or moving from PC exclusivity in order to spread the word that "hey, consoles are good".

Next, you start releasing the PC version long after the console version, either not tweaking it for the platform's strengths, or claiming piracy caused bad sales and not the console exclusive period.

Finally, you do the same thing again, by making the amount of hoops the user has to jump through incredible, and add your own DRM to a system that at its root, is meant to curb piracy in the first place.

It is really difficult to see this as anything other than publishers deliberately souring the pot, to force the transition to console without causing a mass backlash from PC gamers. And this is a far greater threat to PC gaming than any console has ever represented.

There are heroes like Valve, CD Projekt and Stardock, who still believe in the PC. iD has made some excellently reasoned points about exactly where the industry is going. Blizzard I'm not too sure about, as WoW is clearly responsible for the large shift in wherever PC gaming is going, as is EA's Sims titles — and I'm yet to figure out if that's a good thing.

Steam is, to my mind, a very good thing. That more and more publishers are jumping on it and not the amazingly bad Games For Windows Live, and that worldwide coverage is slowly increasing can only be seen as critical mass for digital distribution.

Of course, there are the occasional abortions like GTA IV including copy protection on top of Steam again, and some logic puzzles with not being able to play separate games simultaneously when on different machines using the one Steam account, but by and large Steam as an anti-piracy tool is pretty good.

Yes, I'm aware Steam emulators exist. But the truth is, everything is cracked. This isn't going to change soon. And the pirates are getting a much better experience than those buying from the store. I believe the convenience of Steam and the decent, regular sales make it a compelling platform to use legally for those who would usually use BitTorrent instead. As far as we can see, Valve has done much more than the PC Gaming Alliance by actually managing to bring it back from the brink, and the more support it gets the better.

The upside to all of this is that indy games are coming out of the woodwork on PC as the big publishing houses flee to consoles as their primary SKU. AudioSurf, Darwinia, World of Goo and others are changing the way we play games — although the best of these have simply ended up ported to Xbox Live, perhaps proving the business model is just as good for indy developers.

It's hard to see the shift to console as anything but inevitable, excluding RTS and MMOs it's just too strong a business case. There's still hope, of course, as the PC has pulled through many, many times before. There's even potential that gaming will eventually end up remote, with all the processing not done in a local box, but in a warehouse kilometres away, assuming the internet gets fast enough. At that point, the matter of consoles and PCs becomes irrelevant, you just plug a cable and controller into your TV and off you go.

For now, I've found I spend more time on the Xbox these days compared to PC. If it truly is on its last legs, I just wish game publishers would stop defiling the corpse of a once proud tradition by making its remaining games unplayable.